The United States and the People’s Republic of China have been security competitors and ideological rivals since the inception of their relationship in 1972. Once they began to exchange goods, capital, people, and technology on a large scale in the 1990s, however, the two countries shelved at least some of their political and security concerns and agreed to let forces of economic integration work their will.

But the two countries that have led the globalization of the world economy for the past twenty-five years are now failing—utterly—to foster collective action during the global health crisis set off by the new coronavirus. Instead, they are racing to the bottom, with both governments refracting the outbreak through the prism of geopolitical competition while hurling insults about each other’s competence and intent.

Coordination Amid Competition

The United States had subsumed many of its concerns about China’s Communist-led political system to an effort aimed at ensuring a more integrated, less isolated, less autarkic China—one that joined and participated in the international system. Yet, by helping to enable a stronger Chinese economy, Washington also set aside, at least temporarily, its concerns about China’s capacity to turn butter into guns.

China, meanwhile, was more than happy to harvest U.S. expertise and technology. But the openness this required was largely anathema to a system that relies on political control and ideological discipline. Beijing allowed Chinese citizens to travel and study abroad, including to the United States. China soon came to depend on U.S. and international demand to drive much of its economic growth and manufacturing-related employment. And it must continue to depend on global demand if it hopes to pull its economy out of the current crisis. Despite its sweeping and decades-long ambition to absorb and indigenize as much foreign technology as possible, China has, ironically enough, had to open itself up further to gain access to the very technology it hopes to indigenize. Beijing seeks to turn foreign technologies into Chinese technologies, and so it has increasingly made technology transfer, including in biotech and pharmaceuticals, a precondition for foreign firms to win contracts or do business in China.

Evan A. Feigenbaum
Evan A. Feigenbaum is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he oversees research in Washington, Beijing, and New Delhi on a dynamic region encompassing both East Asia and South Asia.
More >

Against that backdrop, the two countries have coordinated on a series of important transnational issues, especially in times of crisis. That coordination was self-interested, not altruistic, but it yielded tangible results that benefited both countries and the world:

Today, such coordination is glaringly absent.

Entrenching Rivalry

Chinese state television argued—outrageously—that the United States itself may have been the source of the virus and then inflicted it on China. Other Chinese state media has implicitly threatened to weaponize the biomedical supply chain, leaving the United States to a “hell of coronavirus.” China’s ambassador to the United States walked back those statements, but the damage has already been done and the political fallout has unsurprisingly begun to bleed back into every proposed area of cooperation with China on public health. Not to be outdone, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross triumphantly argued that China’s struggles with the virus could “accelerate the return of jobs” to the United States, raising hackles in Beijing.

That prior episodes of coordination are not being replicated today is a result of several dynamics:

  • The personalities, pugnacious inclinations, and domestic political imperatives of the leaders who currently manage both countries
  • The way that both bureaucracies have come to view nearly every challenge through the lens of their security competition
  • Early actions in China to muzzle whistleblowers and suppress the dissemination of virus-related information
  • Ross’s rhetoric about capitalizing economically on China’s predicament
  • Beijing’s propaganda campaign to shift blame onto foreigners, including the United States and Italy
  • An escalating war of words between Chinese and U.S. officials over responsibility and culpability
  • The tendency in both capitals to forget their own productive history of past coordination and its benefits

The net result is that security competition is bleeding back into every area of U.S.-China interaction, from economic integration to critical scientific research, even infectious disease prevention, mitigation, and cures.

The World’s Dilemma

The current tensions raise tough questions for the rest of the world about both what China and the United States are doing and what they’re not doing. Neither Washington nor Beijing is helping to organize and lead a global response to an acute health and economic crisis unseen since World War II. They are not mobilizing the G20, nor international institutions, nor multinational health and financial instruments. And that leaves all other countries to fend for themselves against the dreadful predations of this virus.

What could change this? What if no crisis is truly big enough to elicit even modest cooperation between Beijing and Washington? It is probable that only third parties can. A multinational coalition through which other countries leave China, the United States, or both looking like the spoiler of meaningful cooperation is the only immediate way to arrest this downward spiral, at least with respect to public health and economic mitigation.

There is at least one precedent for this amid intensifying U.S.-China competition: third countries, not the United States or China, stepped in to set trade and investment rules in Asia through the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. The United States and China have had to adapt. Ultimately, other governments, especially in Asia and Europe, will once again need to step up. Sadly, all are now preoccupied with fighting the virus mostly alone.